This post will focus on how Belcher’s personal journey and experiences through the First World War challenged his beliefs and values. Belcher describes the journeys he made throughout his time in the Navy. From Greece to Italy or to Spain, he lists the different countries he visited in a systematical way, retracing his own personal journeys through his memoirs. This list however becomes restrained at the first outbreak of War:
‘1915 passes to give way to another year. Will the war end now, and is Molock satisfied with the Blood of Victims’ (6)
His faith is tested by the atrocities and violence of the war, which he has come to witness firsthand. He describes how he and his crew ‘face death a hundred times’ (58) and how this fear and pressure of war affects them: ‘two men had already hanged themselves’ (58). This displays the pressure of war, mentally, and how the inevitability of death pervades their thoughts. Belcher describes one of his near death encounters when, he says, ‘a submarine sunk our boat’ (59), fortunately they were saved. At the brink of death, life becomes a ‘nightmare of unceasing horror’ (74) for Belcher and he must face the realities of war with his trust in God.
Throughout Belcher’s recollections and contemplation of war he more than often refers to the role of God and the challenges towards his belief he encounters. The atrocities and violence of war have come to make him question his God, with him beginning ‘to wonder why God allowed it’ (52). Although his values are tested, what becomes clear throughout the memoirs is that ultimately they were strengthened by this challenge of his faith. He goes on to explain how he did not revile ‘him for doing so, but accepting it as inexplainable’ (52). When the war comes to an end, his faith in God is demonstrated by his blunt statement that:
‘Then I believe God stopped the war, although he never started it’ (60)
Belcher becomes torn between the idea of whether God played a part in the war itself and this concern shapes the final parts of his memoirs. He displays the presence of both God and the Devil, and these opposing figures come to represent the cause and end to war for him. He claims that, ‘My inherited knowledge thought that God did play a part, but I have since learnt that man brings all things upon himself by Satan the Devil’ (61). Belcher’s belief is that man, being tempted, gave into the devil, and allowed evil to manifest itself in the horrors of mankind.
‘The stored up years of hate…between the nations of the earth finds expression in horrible slaughter, while the God of War and Evil wages mankind on to further atrocities to invent further weapons to slay mankind more quickly’ (74)
Another interesting aspect to Belcher’s reflection of the war are his comments on the profiteers and power behind the combat. He states:
‘I have been asked why does not God stop it all. Man started it, or those grey haired incompetents, called Statesmen, egged on by financiers seeking new methods at the expense of others.’ (74)
Belcher’s tone here is one of resentment towards the people behind the commanding of war itself. He believes that the evils of war are produced from the greed of man. The ‘financiers’ that he mentions, are unconcerned with the lives of others and are only looking for more ways to exploit the lives of others, in particular the working class.
Belcher offers us his reflections on war and the distaste he has for such activity. He describes how the First World War affected his values and challenged his faith, only to strengthen his belief in God and to continue his pursuit of the good of man, rather than crumble under the pressure and evils of war.
Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53
Roper, Michael. ‘Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War’. History Workshop Journal. 50.3 (2000)